Ride a wave, hunt for shells, build a sand castle, spy on wildlife, eat the catch of the day, watch the sun set: Now is the perfect time to rediscover the endlessly surprising swath of sand where Texas meets the Gulf.
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I was a lucky kid. I lived on Galveston Bay, where I could ride my horse in the surf and watch the moon pop out of the water from my bedroom window. But my luck didn’t last. The industrial pollution finally got so thick that my family fled, chased inland by waves of dead fish. I’ve held a bit of a grudge against the entire Texas coast ever since.
Three decades, however, is a long time to snub such a large swath of land, so a few months ago I went back to La Porte, my old stomping grounds. While in some respects the place remains a throwback to the old days, the only dead fish I saw were in the snapshots of proud fishermen at Linda’s Sylvan Beach Bait and Tackle, in Sylvan Beach Park. In fact, the bay water was so clear that it inspired me to prowl the rest of our vast coast, where I soon discovered that, while I had been off pouting, things had actually improved. Where once there were only dozens of brown pelicans, now there are a few thousand. Whooping cranes and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are rebounding like NBA hotdoggers. Historic buildings, once razed for parking lots, are treasured. Wetlands, finally recognized as filters for the bays and nurseries for all manner of marine babies, are being protected and replanted. Every year coastal hatcheries are pouring 30 million red drum fingerlings into the bays to replenish the once dwindling population. And you can even eat Texas oysters without making sure your will is in order.
No, I’m not saying that everything is perfect. But this watery edge of Texas just keeps getting better.
The Lower Coast
The bad news was that the car rental company at the Harlingen airport was oversold and I’d have to wait for the tuna-can-on-wheels I’d reserved. The good news was that the manager took pity on me and handed me the keys to a swank Chevy convertible, no extra charge. It was as if the travel gods were daring me not to have a good time on South Padre Island, a place I had disparaged for years as, well, shallow—nothing but characterless high-rise condos, Jell-O shots, and sun-scorched parasailors. An hour later, as I crossed the soaring causeway from Port Isabel to South Padre, I decided it was high time I learned—literally—to have fun on this brash and flashy isle.
I started my education with lessons in sand-castle building, the best way to get attention on the beach without breaking the law. Forget the packed-and-upturned-Styrofoam-cup concept. Under the patient instruction of Lucinda Wierenga, a partner in Sons of the Beach, I learned to make a "batter” of sand and water, build stalagmite-like towers by piling up scoops of the stuff, and then, using modified pastry knives and other odd little tools, carve those rustic forms into windowed turrets with stairs snaking up the side. Strangers stopped and took pictures.
My inflated ego was promptly punctured during my next lesson—surfing. Gene and Rachel Gore, the owners of South Padre Surf Company, met me at Isla Blanca County Park and, after giving me a brief talk on safety—to avoid getting clobbered by my surfboard I should stay underwater for three seconds after I fall—they zipped me up in a wet suit and I paddled through the chilly water on my big foam longboard. This time no strangers stopped and took pictures, thank God, but with Gene’s help I actually caught a couple of waves before my feet were frozen solid.
After they thawed, I decided to stay on dry land and do some field research on birds, a fail-safe project considering that more avian species—some six hundred—can be spotted in Texas than in any other state, and 75 percent of them spend time on the coast. Armed with the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail map for the lower coast, one of three guides published by Texas Parks and Wildlife, I headed first to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a vast expanse of brush, grasslands, and tidal flats on the mainland about an hour north of South Padre. At the entrance, I was greeted by a phalanx of roadrunners and, eyeing me from his perch on a power line, an Aplomado falcon, an endangered raptor that is being reintroduced in the refuge. My convertible proved to be an ideal mobile blind on the refuge’s fifteen-mile Bayside Drive, where I saw scores of redhead ducks and a trio of white pelicans. (Birds are less startled by vehicles than they are by folks on foot.) On the way back to South Padre, I checked out Los Ebanos, an 82-acre private preserve too new to have made the map, with paths winding through forests of Texas ebony and alongside a small lake, a prime hangout for green kingfishers and black-bellied whistling ducks. But the most effortless birding was back on the island, at the Laguna Madre Nature Trail, where knowledgeable birders kindly tutored me on minutiae like the difference between a clapper rail and the smaller Virginia rail. Even if you don’t know a marbled godwit from a garbling nitwit, you can still enjoy the sunsets over the laguna.
Although dolphin-viewing cruises abound both on Padre and across the causeway in Port Isabel, the most instructive spying may be onboard the Laguna Skimmer, captained by George and Scarlet Colley. The couple, who own the tour company Colley’s Fins to Feathers, know most of the 150 or so bottlenose dolphins who live in Laguna Madre by name. They’ve just opened a new nature center, plastered with photos of frolicking dolphins, which boasts a touch tank full of sea critters, including a lightning whelk, the unofficial poster mollusk in the Colleys’ campaign to teach folks not to collect live shells (the ones someone still calls home).
But shells aren’t the only things to gather on these shores, and just across the street from the center, in one of the island’s oldest buildings, the Beachcomber’s Museum whetted my appetite for man-made booty. This combination coffee shop, ice-cream-and-chili parlor, and bookstore is also the repository of Spanish coins, Civil War buttons, stone points, and old bottles uncovered on Padre. One of its owners, Steve Hathcock, has been so kind as to draw up a treasure map of the area, noting the locations of shipwrecks and where doubloons, mastodon teeth, and the like have been found. The tale about one site, at the Port Mansfield Channel, on the northern end of the island, was enough to make me want to swashbuckle up there and start sifting through the sands. It seems that, during construction of the channel in the fifties, the dredgers sliced right through one of three Spanish galleons that sank there in 1554, showering the banks with muck, bits of ship, and heaps o’ silver coins.
Artifacts from those three ships are on display, no digging required, at the Treasures of the Gulf Museum in Port Isabel. The adjacent Port Isabel Historical Museum, housed in the two-story, 1899 Champion dry goods store, accomplishes what none of my high school history teachers ever did: infusing dry factoids with drama and even humor. In one interactive display where you try to identify mysterious-looking old stuff, the multiple-choice answers for what turns out to be a chunk of whale blubber used as lantern fuel include "early margarine found on Boca Chica beach.”
The historic heart of this picturesque little town is the Port Isabel Lighthouse, built in 1852. Since it’s the only lighthouse on the Texas coast that’s open to visitors, the 74-step spiral climb to the top is practically mandatory—and well worth the effort just to be nose-to-beak with the seagulls gliding past.
Back on the island, I rounded out my education with a guided tour of Sea Turtle Inc., a nonprofit rescue center founded in 1977 by the late Ila Loetscher, the Turtle Lady of South Padre. The motley crew of resident turtles included Merry Christmas, who has a deformed shell, and Fred, a three-flippered loggerhead who swims poorly but will eat anything, including a pair of sunglasses that accidentally toppled into his tank and had to be surgically removed.
And then there’s Lefty, a Kemp’s ridley who, despite having lost both right flippers and a chunk of his shell in a boating accident, is still going strong. I think a turtle that resilient deserves to be the official mascot of our comeback coast.
The Central Coast
Spend fifteen minutes staring at the jellyfish pulsing in their tanks at the Texas State Aquarium, in Corpus Christi, and you’ll be ready to deep-six your Xanax. Not that you’d need it in Corpus, a city seemingly hell-bent on stress reduction. There is no downtown traffic to speak of, and the tourist attractions, refreshingly geared more toward edu-tainment than eater-tainment, are conveniently clustered on the waterfront: the aquarium, focused on protecting the Gulf’s marine life rather than simply accumulating lots of weird-looking creatures from around the world; the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, a retired World War II battleship that survived a kamikaze attack in the Pacific; the light-filled Art Museum of South Texas, designed by Philip Johnson; and the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, notable for its extensive shipwrecks exhibit and seashell collection. The harbor-hugging downtown also boasts a cozy entertainment district that has sprung up around Water Street Market, a colorful family of locally grown restaurants and shops surrounding a bougainvillea-filled courtyard.
But the best thing the city has going for it is its bay, whose curving coastline is as pleasing as Mona Lisa’s smile. Pop in a geo-appropriate CD (say, King of the Surf Guitar: The Best of Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, available at Surf Club Records, in Water Street Market), roll down the windows, and cruise Shoreline Boulevard (which becomes Ocean Drive south of downtown), with its wide seawall promenade, tidy marina, grassy parks, stretch of swanky residences, and smattering of sculptures. It’s the kind of setting that sparks creativity, and you’ll find evidence galore at the Art Center of Corpus Christi. The gift shop here sells works by local artists, ranging from classic watercolor seascapes to more eclectic pieces, like violins and bugles made from gourds by Mary Nighthawk.
What Corpus doesn’t have are expansive beaches, but there are miles and miles of them just minutes away. To the southeast is North Padre Island (not to be confused with South Padre Island, created in 1962 when the Port Mansfield Channel cut the 130-mile-long Padre
Island in two). Padre Island National Seashore encompasses the lion’s share of this windswept spit and—with its 60-mile stretch of four-wheel-drive-friendly beach—is the ultimate location to finally put that disgusting Hummer of yours to the test. (Outside of a few islands and a handful of small vehicle-free zones, our beaches are official Texas roadways.)
If cruising the beach isn’t your thing, you can try your hand at windsurfing on Laguna Madre, the shallow bay between the island and the mainland. At Bird Island Basin, considered one of the top spots for the sport in the country, Worldwinds has boards—and instructors—for rent. But whatever you do, don’t leave the park without popping into the Malaquite Visitor Center to view a 1947 home movie of some 40,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles coming ashore at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, to lay their eggs. Because of habitat destruction, commercial fishing, and poaching (in Mexico, some consider the eggs an aphrodisiac), thirty years later a mere 1,100 adult Kemp’s ridleys remained in the wild.
And now? The endangered cuties number around 12,000 adults, thanks to a variety of factors, including mandatory turtle excluders on shrimp nets, increased public awareness, and North Padre’s head-start turtle program. Since 1978 scientists have collected tens of thousands of eggs—first from Rancho Nuevo, now from North Padre as well—hatched them in controlled conditions, and then released the babies just north of the visitors center. Patrolling for egg-laying females during nesting season, from April to July, gives you a righteous excuse to lollygag on North Padre’s shores all day long (don’t touch the old girls; just mark the location and report your discovery by calling 361-949-8173, extension 226). And the early-morning hatchling releases, from late May to mid-September (call the hotline: 361-949-7163), will motivate you to get up and catch the sunrise.
For those who prefer their sand and surf with more creature comforts, Mustang Island lies just north of the park, accessible on the south end via Texas Highway 361 or, on the north, via a free ferry from just south of Aransas Pass. The ferry drops you in the center of Port Aransas, a town laudable not so much for bouncing back as for holding on tightly to the Funky trophy. It’s no place to be during spring break, of course, but any other time of the year it’s ripe for quality loafing: cheering on surfers from the end of the Horace Caldwell Pier; scoping out waterfowl and alligators from the tower at the Port Aransas Birding Center; catching a local band at the Back Porch, an open-air bar on the harbor; or watching dolphins arch through the bow wake of big ships as they squeeze by Roberts Point Park, next to the ferry landing. And while it ain’t no Pacific tide pool, Port A’s granite riprap jetty, just northeast of town, harbors sea urchins and anemones, periwinkle snails, barnacles, an occasional octopus, and yes, even rock roaches, fourteen-legged crustaceans that can change color and drink saltwater from both ends.
Port A is also the gateway to San Jose Island, a case study of the egalitarian appeal of the Texas Open Beaches Act, which allows the public "free and unrestricted use” of all the state’s beaches. The Bass family, of Fort Worth, may own the 28-mile-long St. Jo (as it’s known locally), but they don’t own its beaches. So hop aboard the jetty boat that leaves from Fisherman’s Wharf for a ten-minute ride to some of the best shelling in the state. Bonus: You won’t have to dodge a single lead-footed off-roader, the sometimes-harrowing flip side of "unrestricted use.”
Half an hour north of Port Aransas are the sister cities of Rockport and Fulton, which have perfected the art of reinvention, flowing from meatpacking to fishing to shipbuilding to tourism with the changing economic tides. Despite some recent graceless developments, the quaintness quotient here remains high, from downtown Rockport, with its bookshops, galleries, cafes, and old-time barber shop that’s a direct portal to Mayberry, to the fabulous vertically challenged oak groves along Fulton Beach Road. Maybe the area’s burgeoning eco-businesses, like birding tours aboard The Skimmer and guided paddling trips through the Lighthouse Lakes kayak trail with Captain Sally’s Rockport Kayak Outfitters, will safeguard it against any further loss of character.
And whatever the future brings, there will always be the dazzling natural charms of the nearby 59,000-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and its most famous winter residents, the whooping cranes. Although still the rarest animal in North America, whoopers now number an estimated 313 in the wild, up from a low of around 14 in the forties. Now that’s a comeback.
The Upper Coast
Galveston is the Rocky Balboa of comebacks, and for concrete proof you need look no farther than the seawall. Built to protect the city after the Great Storm of 1900 killed at least six thousand people and erased one third of its buildings, this ten-mile-long, seventeen-foot-tall bulkhead is a testament to the indomitable human spirit—and a great waterfront sidewalk for bike riding. (Rental shops abound along Seawall Boulevard.)
As you pedal along, don’t fixate on the beige water and gray sand. Instead, simply turn away from this lackluster seashore and head for what sets Galveston apart from any other place on the Texas coast: its astounding concentration of historic buildings between the seawall and the harbor. You can tour residential temples to the excesses of the Gilded Age, like the arched and turreted Moody Mansion, built in 1895, and Ashton Villa, an 1859 confection of brick and filigree ironwork. Or simply wander the fifty-square-block East End Historic District, whose streets are lined with more-anonymous dwellings.
Then there’s the Strand, a historic district on the bay side of the Island. Known in the 1870’s as the Wall Street of the Southwest, when it was home to the state’s five largest banks, this hotbed of commerce, with its wealth of Gothic buildings, had seriously hit the skids less than a century later. Fortunately, restoration mania swept the Island in the seventies, and once again, Galveston’s downtown became a showplace. Although the ornate storefronts and imposing former banks now harbor their fair share of T-shirt and flip-flop shops (so that’s what all those freighters are hauling in), they’re also home to the likes of the Galveston County Historical Museum, where you can see film footage of the 1900 storm, and at least one gloriously oddball store: Col. Bubbie’s, a warren of military surplus, from gas masks to German army sweatpants.
Along nearby Ship’s Mechanic Row and Postoffice Street, you’ll find galleries, restaurants, bars, and more shops. It’s not difficult to wangle last-minute tickets to a show—maybe a concert by the Oak Ridge Boys, where you might bump into Bush the elder and his entourage—at the lovingly restored Grand 1894 Opera House. You can linger over tomes on local lore at Midsummer Books or simply stand on a street corner admiring the Strand’s abundance of architectural flourishes.
When you tire of city sightseeing, head for the north end of the Island and take the car ferry—a free fifteen-minute ride through dolphin-infested waters—to the Bolivar Peninsula, where you’ll find 27 miles of beach lined with vacation houses for rent. There are also lots of birds: Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, at first glance an unremarkable expanse of sand and mud, is the winter gathering spot for as many as 100,000 of our feathered friends at a time—gulls, terns, avocets, plovers, and falcons.
At the northern end of the peninsula, where it hooks up with the mainland, sits the community of High Island, so named because it’s perched on a salt dome that rises 32 feet above the surrounding marshes. Not exactly nosebleed territory, but it’s elevated enough and forested enough to catch the fancy of migrating birds, which in turn catch the fancy of birders hoping to cross a couple more warblers off their life lists and pick up one of Paul Foreman’s colorful "beach houses” for martins at the High Island Craft Shop. What the birders are most hoping for, however, is a springtime phenomenon known as a "fallout,” when exhausted northbound birds—who’ve been flapping nonstop since they left the Yucatán six hundred miles ago—collide with a southbound cold front. The subsequent en masse landing of thousands of birds in the oak groves of the island’s Houston Audubon Society sanctuaries has been called one of the most remarkable wildlife spectacles in the world.
The Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles north, can claim some spectacles of its own, like when 80,000-plus snow geese congregate in the marshes to discuss the winter weather or when spring sunshine lures dozens of alligators onto the banks of Shoveler Pond. On the bragging board at the refuge’s information station, one fortunate visitor last February listed seeing, in addition to a slew of birds, both a river otter and a bobcat. But even if you’re not so lucky, experiencing these 34,000 acres of raw, marshy wilderness is well worth the visit.
While it’s not surprising to find such an unspoiled tract on the relatively unpopulated east side of Galveston Bay, the existence of the Armand Bayou Nature Center, smack-dab in the midst of the NASA suburbs on the west side of the bay, is nothing short of miraculous. The 2,500-acre spread is loaded with 370 species of wildlife and crisscrossed with trails snaking through wetlands, woodlands, and tall-grass prairie. The center also hosts canoe and pontoon boat excursions up the bayou, a brackish estuary where ospreys dive for fish, alligators slip from shore, and pileated woodpeckers drum on utility poles.
After all this communing with nature, a visit to the nearby Kemah Boardwalk—a strip of theme restaurants, midway-style arcade games, carnival rides, and gewgaw shops—is jarring. Still, even this eater-tainment complex can be seen as a positive sign; after all, the Landry’s corporation wouldn’t have considered the place a potential playground if fun-seekers would have had to wade through dead fish to ride the miniature choo-choo. Besides, you can take it—or leave it, simply by crossing Clear Creek Channel into Seabrook, a sort of anti-Kemah, with scruffy shrimp boats and no-nonsense seafood markets.
Seabrook is also the starting point for a drive up Todville Road, built along the route of a rail line that, from 1915 to 1932, carried five trains a day between Houston and Galveston, taking passengers to their seaside vacation homes; many of them are still in great shape, peeking out from thick vegetation. Near the end of this short but atmospheric drive is Pine Gully Park, a little gem on the bay with a fishing pier, picnic tables tucked under leaning oaks, and a six-mile-round-trip hike-and-bike trail that links several delightful small parks. And you might want to take in the Todville nostalgia sooner rather than later: Bayport, a planned one-thousand-acre commercial shipping port, whose ultimate fate is currently tied up in court, looms large in the area’s future.